Sh*t My Agent Sells: The Art of Turning Instafads Into Tome-blrs

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103144338 Sh*t My Agent Sells: The Art of Turning Instafads Into Tome blrs

Justin Halpern, right, with William Shatner.

If publishers could collage a portrait of their ideal consumer of novelty gift books, it would probably look something like this: begin with a hapless urban 20-something whose life is “out of control” (Fuck! I’m in My 20s). She has an iPhone and sends a lot of text messages (Damn You, Autocorrect!). She continues to find the idea of the hipster amusing (Stuff Hipsters Hate, Look at this Fucking Hipster, Hipster Hitler, Hipster Puppies). This imagined reader thinks her parents are darling, whimsical creatures (Dads Are the Original Hipsters; My Mom, Style Icon), worthy of affection on the basis of their ineptitude, outdated tastes and bluntness (When Parents Text, Crap at My Parents’ House, Sh*t My Dad Says).

Her sexual desire is infantilized (Hot Guys and Baby Animals, Bangable Dudes in History) but it might be because her male counterparts (Fuck Yeah Menswear, Bike Snob, Total Frat Move) fail to inspire lust, perhaps since they favor lunch food to libidinous interactions (Scanwiches, Insanewiches). She has a knowing love for old-timey things like thank you notes (ThxThxThx) and used books (Forgotten Bookmarks). She cares about grammar enough to make fun of people who don’t (The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks) and has a well-developed sense of irony (Awkward Family Photos, White Girl Problems, Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater) and sarcasm (Dear Blank Please Blank, Passive Aggressive Notes, Humble Brags). Most important, she shops at Urban Outfitters.

Welcome to the world of the memeoir.

Once upon a time, back when blogging was about writing long, self-involved posts and sharing feelings and insights, bloggers got book deals to write novels or memoirs (ah, the good old days of 2005). Now there’s a different formula for web-to-book success: start a Tumblr or Twitter feed with some combination of puppies, fear of protracted adolescence, horrific Americana, text messages from your friends or photos of your parents; add a dose of nostalgia, regret or chagrin, promote it all over the Internet and wait for the literary agents to find you. And they will find you—there’s a whole crop of them, growing in number everyday.

In 2004, Byrd Leavell was, in his own words, “this broke 24-year-old agent” who tracked down and signed a Lothario blogger named Tucker Max. “Originally, I couldn’t give Tucker Max away,” recalled Mr. Leavell in a recent phone call. When he finally signed a book deal, “I think it was a $7,000 advance.” Since then, Mr. Max has sold almost two million books—one of the most successful blog-to-book transformations ever. His bro/new media credentials thus established, Mr. Leavell took another risk in September 2009, when he signed a Maxim senior named Justin Halpern who had a Twitter feed called Sh*t My Dad Says. At that time, Twitter was only three-and-a-half years old, and the first wave of Twitter-based books was just starting to come out. As for Mr. Halpern, he had started his feed a month before. He had 500,000 followers.

“At this point it’s easier because people are starting to trust me more,” said Mr. Leavell. With Mr. Halpern’s input, the two decided on a strategy that compiled Mr. Halpern’s quotes from his father’s foul-mouthed observations into a series of David Sedaris-like essays. A long auction ensued. “I was really proud of the cover letter. I had a line that said ‘This will be the book that all other Twitter books are defined by,’ or something like that,” said Mr. Leavell. It turned out he was right: Sh*t My Dad Says, the book, spent months on the best-seller lists and was even made into a (short-lived) sitcom starring William Shatner.

However, the transformation from Twitter to humorous essays was not without some bumps. “At first, the covers they sent us, they were trying to do ‘Here’s my twitter feed book,’ like bubble script on coffee cups,” said Mr. Leavell.

He insisted that the project needed to be presented as a book that people could read, a strategy he has carried over with other Twitter-based clients, such as the authors of another Twitter feed, White Girl Problems. Hyperion is releasing that book, White Girl Problems, as a novel, complete with requisite chick lit stiletto heels on the cover. “You create a fictional protagonist,” said Mr. Leavell, as his recipe for a successful transformation from Twitter to book.

“I don’t think that anyone should print out a Tumblr or a Twitter feed and call it a book proposal because those things aren’t books. They’re Tumblrs and they’re Twitter feeds,” said Kate McKean, an agent who represented the bloggers behind the New York Times’s best-selling lolcat books I Can Has Cheezburger and who has converted the Twitter feeds Fake AP Stylebook and Historic Tweets into books. “I’ve always thought since the blog to book thing started that it has to be a book as well as a blog,” she continued. “Highly episodic novels or nonfiction books are kind of tiresome to read because every time a little episode ends you give the reader a reason to put the book down. If it’s just tweet, tweet, tweet or short post, short post, it’s one of those books that you dip in and out of.”

Like Mr. Leavell, Ms. McKean, who has an MFA from the University of Southern Mississippi, has encouraged the expansion of Twitter feeds into full-form essays. The book version of Fake AP Stylebook ended up being something of a sarcastic commentary on celebrity-driven news coverage. But another book she ushered into being, Historical Tweets, took the opposite tack, an illustrated picture book with all the fonts and formatting of the website itself.

Some agents prefer to think of the concept and then mine the Internet for content. Laurie Abkemeier, a literary agent with DeFiore and Company, decided a couple years ago that the world needed a book about ugly Christmas sweaters. She went onto the Internet until she found Brian Miller, Adam Paulson and (the appropriately named) Kevin Wool, three guys in Indiana who sold ugly Christmas sweaters from their website, http://www.UglyChristmasSweaterParty.com.

“I literally looked at every site related to ugly Christmas sweaters to see who would have the biggest platform for this book,” she remembered in a phone interview. “When I reached out to them, they were totally game for it.”

She proposed they write a book about how to throw an ugly Christmas sweater party, released last month as the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book from Abrams. It has 152 pages of sweaters and party tips, including how to judge a contest.

Ms. Abkemeier says that she usually looks for talent on the Internet only when she has a particular concept in mind, generally preferring the traditional content mine of her slush pile.

The adaptation game can be more difficult with Tumblrs or blogs that involve user-generated content. Monika Verma, the agent who transformed the website Damn You, Autocorrect! to a book, said that she found the site from an aggregator of popular websites. “I think I had seen it online—I don’t know if it was BuzzFeed or another viral aggregate,” said Ms. Verma. “It’s such a relevant issue now that everyone has smart phones.”

Ms. Verma has also sold book versions of the websites Bangable Dudes in History, Things That Suck, Things Younger Than John McCain, and Fuck Yeah Menswear (which makes fun of overdevotion to men’s fashion). But how does one turn a chronology of images into a book? With Damn You, Autocorrect! Ms. Verma had the blogger, Jillian Madison, add a list of the 10 most common autocorrect mistakes as well as original autocorrects never posted online.

Like the Internet memes themselves, these books are likely to serve future generations as not much more than a microcosmic documentation of a blip in time—what will Texts From Last Night be worth to us in 30 years? Humble Brags? Passive Aggressive Notes? (Who remembers Rich Hall’s Sniglets, from 1984? Or even further back, from 1968, Bennett Cerf’s Treasury of Atrocious Puns?) And what do we do with a darker strain of Internet memes that has surfaced lately? Few shoppers would likely buy a book version of Pepper Spray Cop, or the catastrophic financial true stories of Occupy Student Debt, or Photo Shop Looter. And as quickly as the memeoir has arrived it might disappear again—a victim of Hollywood, which has caught on to mining Twitter as a way to find writers for its own media. The days when New York literary agents could pluck the low-hanging fruit of Twitter and Tumblr are already gone and the bloggers themselves are savvier than ever—those featuring user-generated content now require their fan base to sign releases for photos. Even for the biggest agents, the competition has gotten fierce.

“It’s tough now,” said Mr. Leavell with a sigh. “All the big Los Angeles agencies have whole divisions of online talent scouts.” He recently tried to sign up the author of Your Aunt Diane, a Twitter feed in the persona of a Santa Fe hippie feminist doula/jewelry designer with a mailbox shaped like a clitoris whose Tweets say things like “Your Aunt Diane’s holistic hangover cure: persimmon juice, milk thistle, green tea, 45 minutes cunnilingus.” Mr. Leavell called, but even though the author had only 20,000 Twitter followers, he arrived too late.

“It’s crazy it’s so tough now,” he lamented.

ewitt@observer.com

Comments

  1. Guestperson says:

    Your Aunt Diane is a cut above most of these feeds.

  2. Guestperson says:

    Your Aunt Diane is a cut above most of these feeds.

  3. Duane Morin says:

    As somebody with a relatively popular Twitter feed who dreams of exactly this kind of opportunity, the thing that I’ve always wondered is “How much content do you need?” I and a friend do funny #hashtag games with Shakespeare.  We’ve got a couple dozen lists, each with couple dozen items.  We speak often about the potential for binding them all up as a book, we just don’t really know where to start.  Any tips? Are the agents cited in the article taking unsolicited proposals?

  4. Guest says:

    Your description of the ideal consumer for these books is pretty much who I’ve imagined, but who actually is buying these books? I don’t know anyone who owns them. (Or, who owns them and is unembarrassed enough to leave them laying around in their apartment). If someone gave me one as a gift I’d put it out on the curb.

  5. Fr@ * says:

    @TotalFratMove has a 6-figure book deal with Grande Central Publishing. TFM.